Student Protests: One Coin Two Sides

The student protests in Quebec, now over one hundred days in, are not unique but very similar to what’s happening in many places on the planet. Civil unrest is dominating and defining this decade, with more people each day standing up and, quietly at first, saying enough is enough.

The obedient governments that the powers that be control are becoming anxious, nervous behind their arrogance. The escalation of violence that is being used by the authorities to quell any type of demonstration only shows how those in charge are becoming both scared and paranoid. There is a growing tide of people where the corporate elite’s tools of distraction are not working anymore. Both sides are seeing the end game.

The Quebec student protests in particular are happening because of a combination of things. Firstly, there is a huge disconnect between the students, along with many others, and the provincial Liberal government’s neo-liberal economic policies and plans to raise tuition. Rising tuition rates became the fuse, but are not the only reasons why these Quebec protests have become the “biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.”

Education is just like everything else today, it’s a business. Even as all the basic elements that sustain life have become cash products, education costs. Higher education is becoming no longer accessible to the majority of people. But then the bubble that was the belief that getting an actual degree in something would somehow guarantee one a job burst years ago. It is skills that are needed not portfolios. I am sure there are also many who have gone onto college or university not necessarily for the learning but because of the marketing to do so, on themselves and their parents. The continuation of a lifestyle, of a high school atmosphere, where party-hardy is often one’s major.

As for the business of education itself, for the year 2011, Harvard University, in the United States, ran a deficit of $130 million on $3.9 billion in expenses. In Canada, McGill University brought in $1.5 billion in endowments alone. The University of British Columbia had $708 million in endowments. But where 20 years ago public funding made up 80% of a university’s total operating revenues, today it has dropped down to 50%, thus greater financial burden has been put onto students and universities alike. All because most “capitalistic-democratic” governments are slashing spending and of course the first to be classed as non-essential are social programs, including education.

As to the Quebec students and their problem with rising tuition rates, let us be inquisitive and compare, shall we? Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal party is planning to raise provincial tuition fees 82%, or $1,700, over the next five years. Even though Quebec is one of the most heavily taxed and indebted territories in North America, this past school term (2011-12), the full-time post secondary tuition fees in Quebec were $2,519., the lowest in Canada. And even with the proposed tuition hikes, they will still be one of the lowest in Canada. Since 2007-08 tuition rates in Quebec have risen about 25%. Total enrollment this past term was 487,482 students. Next lowest tuition fees in Canada, with an enrollment of 27,462 students, is Newfoundland/Labrador at $2,649 per. British Columbia’s tuition rate, with 260,000 enrolled, has actually gone down from 2007-08’s $4,922 to 2011-12’s $4852. Ontario has the most expensive tuition rates going from $5,388 in 2007-08 to 2011-12’s $6,640 and also having the highest enrollment at 745,455 students. New Brunswick is right up there as well, as to cost of education.

Comparing the costs a step further, for a full time student not living at home, a bachelor pad in Vancouver is the most expensive, with an average monthly rent of $839. Toronto is next with an average of $819 per month. In Victoria, rent averages $676 per month and one of the lowest monthly rental fees for a bachelor pad is in Montreal, Quebec, at $549 per month.

Much of the living and tuition costs for the average student are covered by student loans. Which is another aspect driving the protests. For many, after completing their education, rarely does one find employment in their chosen field. Reality kicks in and the job to simply put food on the table begins. On top of this they have their student loan debt to repay.

In 2011 the United States had 37 million borrowers of student loans, totaling $870 billion. Of this total about $234 billion or 27% of it is past due. The average outstanding is $23,300, with 25% owing more than $28,000, 10% owing more than $54,000 and 167,000 students owing more than $200,000 on their student loans. Further, $580 billion of the $870 billion in student loan debt is owed by Americans under the age of 40, with 10% of all loans defaulting in 2 years after graduation. Though President Obama recently dropped the interest rate on student loans to 10% of discretionary income, the interest rate has been 15%. While federal law dictates that there is no declaring bankruptcy on student loans and no debt relief. If you are unable to pay your student loan in the States it stays with you forever, even if you make it to the point where you start receiving old age social security payments, deductions to repay your student loan debt will be drawn.

In Canada the average, advanced education, student has almost $27,000 in debt when their studies are completed. In all, two million Canadians have student loans totalling $20 billion, with interest rates between 5-9%. British Columbia has the highest interest rates on student loans of 2.5% above prime, while in 2009 Newfoundland eliminated interest rates all together. The loans can be paid back in monthly payments over a 9.5 year period or can be extended to a pay period up to 14.5 years. Of course there is always the option of paying off loan as quick as you like. Most students believe they can pay off their loans in 5 years, in reality the average time is 10 years.

Then, when students graduate, they begin their journey to become a consumer and have to readjust themselves to the realities of the day. As of February 2011, mortgages, credit cards, lines of credit and student loans have put the average Canadian family in debt to the tune of $100,000, with debt to income ratio of 150%.

Another driver behind the 30% of Quebec students who are actually protesting is attitude. They are a generation that see the future clearly and they are afraid. Yet they are a more assertive and more confident group than previous generations. They are not intimidated by professors or any other adults for that matter, including their parents. Many now attending post-secondary schools have become a distraction for their teachers and fellow students alike. They have a deep sense of entitlement due to the last twenty years of child centered educating and parenting styles, each one has been repeatedly been told they will do great things in life. In school they demand better marks than they deserve, have no problem scorning and slighting professors, demand that deadlines be altered, that their explanations be accepted without confirmation or verification and would like course requirements to fit their schedules, to fit their availability to do the work. The concept of empathy has been thrown aside and forgotten. Many have learnt their life lessons by watching their parents, who the majority of the time have lived separate lives. Their childhoods have been all about societal permissiveness, overwhelming materialism, video games, texting and I-phones, sexualised TV, music and film and never reading anything of value. But then the more university students think they are sacred cows the more they become similar to the universities themselves, aloof and isolated. Within this ingrained attitude, reality must be quite the body blow and shock to the psyche. The horror of having been programmed into feeling self entitled yet unable to find the job you want.

Now the other side of the coin are the puppet masters. The corporate elite who are pressuring the governments they control to get a handle on this civil disturbances dissident thing. They are pressured themselves because they know we now know the end game. They do not care about this of course, even as their modes of distraction are wearing thin. The fact is nobody can afford the bells and whistles anymore. While the ones at the top arrogantly and blatantly continue try to make as much money from the earth’s resources as fast as they can before the wheels fall off and the planet is a wasteland. But more and more people each day are finally rising from the baby stage; where shiny things have always made our faces alight and cheeks glow, and we would goo goo gaa gaa and clap our hands, with big smiles on our faces. Not so much smiling going on these days. Which impels people all over the world to stand up, especially the young, who still are willing to believe, and the poor, because they got nothing to lose. The corporate elite are urgently trying to suppress the ability and freedom of assembly and protest of the growing amount of people who are becoming unfazed by the propaganda used by the use of distraction and suppression, whether on the street or online. The authorities have decided to do this through violence and because the corporate elite also love cash cows, they are using civil disobedience as just another income stream for their businesses of government.

The pretext of laws to do with dealing with free assembly and protest, are based on the premise; “To protect protesters and to protect the public”, and to be civil about it. In Quebec the authorities are using the tactic known as “kettling”, which oddly sounds like killing. It is where the police surround a large group and arrest every single person in that group. After a few hours or days of confinement and upon being released, each person arrested is given a ticket and fined an average of $640. To date (May25th) over 2500 protesters have been arrested with fines totalling $1.6 million. When the authorities actually receive this money is anyone’s guess. The crowds in Quebec, especially in Montreal, grew after the government’s attempt to suppress them a week ago by enacting Law 78. One point in this Law is raising the fines from $640 to $1000-$5000 per ticket, with much higher fines given to people deemed leaders of their peers. Wow, all the authorities have to do is arrest another 2500 citizens, fine them at least on average $2000 and voila, a cool $5 million in unpaid fines. Law 78 also states that any group of 50 or more people planning to meet must submit detailed plans to the authorities at least 8 hours before and which can be denied. Another slippery slope we have walked upon my friends, how soon does the day arrive where in North America, when four or more people standing on the street corner talking will be broken up and deemed a civil disobedience.

Another fear that the mainstream media is pushing is, if the protests keep happening they will upset such things as the Montreal Jazz festival, the Just for Laughs festival and a Formula One Grand Prix race. All components of the distraction theme and in reality are events that the average person cannot afford to attend or buy the t-shirts. Especially the car race, where millionaires gather to watch million dollar combustible-engine race cars race around a million dollar race track in a city, then fly off in personal aircraft to the next party, leaving the greasy smear of their carbon footprint behind. It is one of their playgrounds for a couple of days, much like the chariot races were for the elite of Ancient Rome.

Right now in Canada, our corporate government has but only one concern. And that is the wealth they can make from the oil-sands of Alberta. To be able to continue to subsidize the multi-billion dollar oil companies with billions of Canadian dollars, cuts of course have to be made elsewhere. Thus much hacking and whacking of social programs is being carried out. And we the people are feeling every hack and whack. While at the same time an undercurrent of anger and frustration is rising in people, stemming perhaps, from 2008 and the global economic crises that exploded and continues on today. The fact that the corporate financial world that caused and continues to cause it were not held accountable, but instead were bailed out, so they can carry on their insatiable ways. But it could also prove to be one move too many on their part.

As to freedom of peaceful assembly and protest, when it is for righting an obvious wrong and as long as one is not dressed in neo-Nazi black, wearing a balaclava, toting a fully loaded knapsack and needing to create chaos, there is nothing wrong with it. Is it not what being a community all is about? We must not allow our governments to make us think it is wrong.

Both sides of the Quebec student protests will eventually come to terms because even though more and more people are seeing that something is fundamentally wrong with society, the Quebec protest was over money, specifically tuition fees, the need for more accessible higher education and the debt they accumulate while in school. It was not unlike, more than one hundred thousand people gathering for an alumni, Welcome to Reality festival. The universities themselves are as much to blame for such unrest. With tuition rates rising quickly to offset continuing losses and to keep the profit margin where they like it. As a business they have also had to make cuts, specifically in academic standards and institutional integrity, while continuing to sell and give away useless degrees and whose curriculums are filled with far too many inane and downright silly courses.  But then “taught knowledge” can only be learned and digested when you are aware of that moment, involved in that moment and not daydreaming about the coming weekends club crawl or where are you going to get your next meal.

We must stop relying so much on governments to create change. We must do this. The most personal, lifestyle, ecological and economic changes to us individually happen within the communities we live in. If your community is doing something you don’t like, go to the next municipal meeting and say your piece. The people you will be speaking with were elected to the position, not given to them. And in most cases such a process is working. To create change on the federal level, each one of us should vote, not for a party but for an individual who will speak on your behalf, not blindly follow the party line and most importantly, knows he or she will be held accountable. But reality dictates it is we and sustained movements that must create change for things such as inequality and poverty, because electoral victories do not.

All through history, whenever mankind arrived at a point where fundamental changes and the right decisions had to be made, often times we waited until we were standing on the edge of the precipice, teetering back and forth on the balls of our feet. Times when the outcome could go either way, like the flip of a coin. Let us not decide to take the easy route and simply fall or step off the edge, or be allowed to be pushed off and blindly rely on being distracted enough to ignore the feeling of the impact when we hit the bottom. But we instead take the harder, but true way, of stepping back. Reclaiming one’s bearings, keeping that coin solidly on its edge, and then with civility, getting together to create the changes our society desperately needs right now. Hopefully this is what is behind the students protesting in Quebec and hopefully this is an idea the government should seriously consider. I also hope both sides have their eyes wide open, are digesting the lessons learned and have the collective wisdom to make the right decisions. For indeed there are two sides to every coin but alas, only one planet.




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